moments before the wind.

August 29, 2006

you’re everybody’s satellite

Filed under: authenticity, business, indie, music, radio — alimarcus @ 6:37 pm

Something interesting happened on KEXP today. It was playing in the office, and I was only half listening in that way that you do when you are focusing on something else, and all of a sudden I realized I was listening to Kevin Cole talk about John Cage. I missed the introduction, so I have no clue why he brought it up, but he was talking about that eponymous piece, 4:33, which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The details of Cage’s performance give it depth: he sits down at the piano, in silence, for the duration of the piece, opening and closing the top to designate movements. Why was Kevin Cole talking about this? I’m thinking to myself that there is no way he is actually going to play the piece on the air. And then he did.

Only, it was just the first movement, which is about four seconds long, and so I was immediately disappointed. The thought was there, Kevin, but you shoulda played the whole thing.

I was also thinking – and this was during Kevin’s set as well, I think – that I wish they played more mainstream music recorded after, say, 1992. Not that there should be an overwhelming amount, but it’d be OK to stick on some tunes that nevertheless fit into the scheme of things over there. What about Counting Crows, or Blues Traveler, or 10,000 Maniacs? What about some 90’s Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple, even some of Jagged Little Pill? John Richards rocks the R.E.M. pretty much every day, which makes me very, very happy – but there is still much work to do. Shoulda played the whole thing.

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August 25, 2006

take comfort in your graduation gown

Filed under: authenticity, digital, music, news — alimarcus @ 10:42 am

Michael Kimmelman on a new Walker Evans show. Walker Evans is one of my most favorite photographers ever. Echoes in this beautifully written article explain enough of why that is, and the only addition I have to make is that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book that falls into that category of “everything.” Some books, regardless of the actual narrative, are about everything; they can be references for so many thoughts and situations and expriences. House of Leaves of course, the source of the name of this blog, is another. One Hundred Years of Solitude is another. The Giver. Catch 22. There are a bunch more.

Anyhow, Kimmelman is usually a thoughtful writer, and in this piece you can tell that he is in my camp when it comes to Walker Evans. And he poses an interesting question:
Is photography closer to music and theater, or to painting? A painting is what it is, and copies of it are not the same. Music and theater exist through their variety of interpretations.

I guess I never thought about categorizing various mediums in this way, and while I understand the point he is making, I just don’t think that I agree. The “variety of interpretations” of a piece of music definitely affect meaning through context, but there really is a fundamental being, also: “it is what it is.” Why would one assign that kind of presence to one form of art over another? Besides, music recorded is an entirely differeny consideration from music performed live.

You can argue it the other way, also. A painting is not just a painting. A painting in a museum is entirely different from one on an easel, or one hanging in your parent’s bathroom, or one stored away in the garage.

A thing that is created is one thing. The context(s) in which is affects other people is completely another. No matter how you see/hear(touch/taste/feel) it.

August 22, 2006

take comfort in the moonlight

Filed under: country, folk, indie, music, reviews, rock — alimarcus @ 11:38 pm

In college, a friend of mine introduced me to the music of a band called Soul Miner’s Daughter, a popular acoustic rock outfit in Atlanta in the late 90’s. He guessed it would be right up my alley, and boy was he right. I’ve held onto this burned CD for years without really knowing much about where it came from.

The band is basically some bongo drums, a guitar guy who sings also, and this powerhouse female lead singer who has a singular voice. It is a sharp-edged snarl, soaring on the bluesy tracks but also angelic on the lighter side. And their weird, nasal harmonies work very well together, producing an incredibly unique combination of sound.

So it goes like this for a while. And then one day, about a year ago, I hear this song on a country station and I think – “that’s Soul Miner’s Daughter!” I recognized Jennifer Nettles’ voice immediately. But what is this? Twangy, cheesy country? whats up?

It turns out that Ms. Nettles has moved on to this group called Sugarland, and over the past year they have completely blown up and I bet som eof you reading this are surprised that this is news to me. So I’ve heard a couple Sugarland songs on the radio, and her voice is as smokin’ as ever, but it seems so out of place in this context. Doesn’t make any sense to me. It feels like, to me, that she sold out.

So i googled her. What I found was this quote from an interview back in 2002 (already a few years post-SMD):

”From an artistic perspective, I had a lot of different things I wanted to try and I didn’t feel at liberty trying different genres and styles of writing with different inputs from band members,” explains Nettles of the Soul Miner’s Daughter split up. ”I wanted to have more diversity, I was tired of being in that acoustic folk rock niche,” she continues.”

So things are flipped, it turns out that she felt pigeonholed the other way around. As a SMD fan though, I feel a bit like I’m losing out, but I have to be careful to refrain from automatic assumptions.

What I do know is that Jennifer Nettles has a mighty career ahead of her. I couldn’t predict what it will sound like, given her track record, but it’s bound to be stunning.

August 21, 2006

that difference is you standing before me

Filed under: country, music — alimarcus @ 7:54 pm

After work today I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some yums and some beer. In the car, I switched on the country music station, mainly because I’m trying to figure out where country went wrong, and every now and then a good song comes on too. “Lesson In Leavin'” by Jo Dee Messina came on, and I’m not sure whether it’s a good song or if I just have too many fond memories of 303 Metcalf, but I love that song. So I guess I was drivin’, singin’ along – “you’re the kinda man a woman thinks she can change/ but the only think changin’ is my way of thinkin'” – and I guess I took a turn a little to fast, and I hear this crashPOP! in the backseat of my car – the beer had slid sideways and into the car door and burst all over my car. Thanks, Jo Dee.

So now, even after i cleaned it,  my car smells like beer and I’m not going to be happy tomorrow morning when I get in it. This is what happens when you listen to bad music. Retribution. At least it was Mirror Pond and not something awful smelling cheap.

August 20, 2006

she died, of course

Filed under: authenticity, business, country, marketing, music, news, writing — alimarcus @ 5:52 pm

This article from yesterday’s NYT is about country musicians in Nashville trying to shed the red state stigma, show people that country music, at it’s core, is not about the sorts of cariacatures most people associate with the genre. Stuff that is offensive and hyper-patriotic, for example. All this talk about the  Dixie Chicks has begun to get to me. Songwriters in the article talk about how one’s career can really be penalized for speaking out in the way they did. And sure, maybe the DC aren’t selling as much now as they once did, but I sure think it’s pretty obvious that they’ve been doing okay for themselves. Why is it such a scandal that they once spoke their minds? More scandalous is the fact that no one seemed to follow in their footsteps; rather, most choose to play it safe.

Even record label execs who were more left-leaning than much of the music they sell wouldn’t say a thing, for fear of compromising the artists. Does it seem obvious to anyone else that this is some weird kind of celebrity popularity contest? It seems like a lot of playground antics to me, and the only thing being harmed is the bottom line. Were it really to be about beliefs and social interest, you’d think that folks would be more willing to speak their minds. Or at least that’s what I’d like to think.

UPDATE: I was just sent this article about activism in rock and country. There are some interesting insights, I guess, about the effectiveness of, say, the Vote for Change tour. In truth I found the tone of the article to be incredibly disheartening, and props to Bertis Downs for saying so. The end of it focuses more on country music and the ways in which war has affected the songs. The end result, according to John Mellencamp and to the writer, Geoff Boucher, is that people are shutting up to preserve their reputations. And again, the DC are used as a prime example, although a quick sidenote mentions how their new album went to #1.

August 18, 2006

no no they cant take that away

Filed under: authenticity, live shows, music, reviews, writing — alimarcus @ 2:13 pm

Alex Ross points me to a Christgau article that I dont’ necessarily see the genius in, but am definitely glad that I read. Mainly because of this quote:

“But records can’t match the exhiliration of the best gigs. You walk home prepared to live forever.”

Though he calls himself a “record guy,” which is unfortunate to hear from a critic, he really hits the nail on the head with this one. Prepared to live forever. It’s just insane to be able to relate to a comment like that, but it’s true, it’s exactly the feeling that makes a live show great. Not only that you are prepared, but that you feel that you have, or that you will.

August 16, 2006

should end this story here

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, folk, music, producers, recording, rock, vinyl — alimarcus @ 8:20 am

I am a very lyrics-oriented critic. Most people take this to mean that my opinions on music come from the words, but what it really means is that songwriting, for me, is about the interplay between the narrative of the words and the narrative of the music. And I’ve been saying this for years. I think I finally found words for it when I was studying music in college, and we’d do all those counterpoint exercises, analyze all of the structure and postulate why the composer made it that way. Searching for stories within the music itself was actually one thing that turned me on the most about those years.

Anyways, having paid some, but not enough, attention to this already, I definitely began to be much more attentive to these kinds of details. Over the years they have ceased to be details and actually become just a part of my working way of making stuff. That’s very articulate, I know.

I bring it up today because in the last week I have come across two different experiences that use lyrics as a genre-defining element of song.

First, in the latest issue of American Songwriter (a new read for me, feels sort of like a “welcome to the family” but also wayyyy too obssessed with Nashville and glorification of the Tin Pan Alley process), country music is said to be all about the story. The words tell a story that people can relate to. The Dixie Chicks tell stories that may apply to you or me, as opposed to, say, Nelly Furtado, who these days is not painting a picture in quite the same way.

Second, yesterday my boss, a venerable hip hop expert and fan, said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m really all about the lyrics. Good hip hop has lyrics that mean something, and sound cool, but they have to mean something important.” Her hip hop DJ/star producer boyfriend would most likely agree.

Lyrics are part of most all American pop music. The rare instrumental band never does make it so far. Implicit in a person’s lyrical focus is a distaste for long solos, jazzy interludes, jam bands, or unintelligible lyrics. And that’s just not true. People shouldn’t have to defend their preferences from imaginary assumptions about what they don’t like. And yet, in both of these instances, people are defining actual genres based on the lyrical importance of the songs. Isn’t it weird?

I have a very strong belief that a good song cannot have either great lyrics or great instrumental tracks, or a great groove. It’s only a great song when all these things combine. People naturally separate the words from the other instruments because we separate the disciplines, and envision a wall between musical instruments that we carry in cases and play on a stage, and a poem that we write, sitting at a desk, on a piece of paper. But your voice is a musical instrument. And just like a piano or a flute or anything else, judgement of the performance of the instrument is based on not only the tone but the order and the style with which the notes come out. With singing it is just the same.

Production-wise, I believe vocals should be at the top. When they are not, I get frustrated and I complain that I can’t hear them. I also am fairly confident that producers are trying to hide the imperfections of the voice in that way, rather than make it obvious to the world that this person may not have the chops.

It could be jazz, or it could be bluegrass, or it could be grunge, or it could be rock, or it could be metal. Lyrics are important for all of these genres. There is not one or another that valudes lyrics more or less. What is interesting is the way that people spin it in order to communicate a certain point. Shared assumptions, you see, have a lot of power, despite reality.

This was all spurred, I should add, by a revelation I had in the shower this morning. I was singing the Nields’ “The Sweetness”, and when I got to my favorite line, I realized in a flash of shampoo that I’d been singing the wrong lyrics for years:
“The trees are golden thirsty and they need a little rain/ Nothing would ever happen if we always stayed the same.”
is not right. Common sense has always gone against that particular phrase, but that’s why I love it. It all of a sudden occured to me though that it’s really that “the trees are cold and thirsty…”

Changes everything. 

August 15, 2006

i don’t think i meant

Filed under: authenticity, business, marketing, music, reviews, writing — alimarcus @ 10:30 pm

On my mind tonight is not a long black train but editors. Every editor is different. Every editing process is different. From working with various editors I have developed a lot of opinions about what works and what doesn’t. I think it’s pretty amazing the way you don’t even consider the existence of things until it somehow becomes a part of your everyday life and then you realize that you have options and choices to make. Being a freelancer will do that to you, I suppose.

The most frustrating experience is when you open a magazine, read your article, and find that the entire thing has deviated from pretty much everything you intended. What’s frustrating is not that it happened, but the way it happened, because when this stuff comes as a surprise, it makes the writer feel out of the loop; not being consulted makes you feel like what you intended isn’t so important, and that’s not a great way for an author to feel. Connected to my gripe about the fact that editorial and advertising tones of voice seem to be waaaaaaay too similar pretty much across the board, is the fact that lots of changes made that really bug me, personally, are the ones to this effect. Being proactive with editors about these kinds of situations is essential – a lesson I am still learning how to navigate. I think most writers are. And I think the coveted situation is when a writer and editor see eye to eye on their back-and-forth commentary.

And some editors are so up front, very specific, and incredibly adept at really seeing things from the writer’s point of view. Sometimes it is an issue of the writer’s ability to write clearly, and sometimes it’s the inability on the part of the editor to really make the effort to understand. So those that are attentive and detailed, the ones that bring up sentences not to correct grammar but to ask for further explanation, for their own clarification – those are the ones I am really beginning to admire.

I wonder if there are writers out there who are opposite, who prefer the authority over collaboration. I wonder why that would be.

I’m also curious about the whole concept of a publication having a “voice.” I definitely understand the motivation behind it – continuity, professionalism, strength of purpose – but in practice it feels, from a writer’s perspective, sometimes too contrived. Restricting, really. Copywriting for marketing or other business purposes, sure, I get that, but when it comes to a more creative bend on things, I often wonder about preserving artistic integrity. But all artists take criticism personally. It’s a matter of audience, time, patience, money, fact, et al.

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